Monday, September 26, 2005

Bad Timing (1980)

Posted by Ian W. Hill

". . . a sick film made by sick people for sick people . . ."
-- an executive at Rank Films, which took its logo off UK prints of the film, on BAD TIMING

Months ago, watching nothing but film noir and neo-noir for weeks on end, I decided to take a break and rewatch one of my favorite films, Nicolas Roeg’s BAD TIMING. Only a few moments into the film, I was aware that I was watching yet another neo-noir, albeit this time one that I had seen many times before without ever thinking of it as such, or ever having seen it referred to in a noir context by anyone anywhere.

But neo-noir it is, in subject, character, mood and structure, and I’d like to see if I can put it in context as such.



“Of course, everything I say has to be taken in the context of who I am . . .”
-- The Foppish Man (Daniel Massey) in Bad Timing

The film opens in a museum in Vienna. We are moving around a number of familiar paintings by Gustav Klimt as the oddly fitting piano of Tom Waits plays "Invitation to the Blues" and credits roll. As Waits sings this sad, haunting ballad, we are presented, in this bright room of natural light, with the shadowy forms of Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), as they consider the Klimts. Waits continues to sing, mentioning "Cagney," "Hayworth," and "the counter of Schwab’s drugstore," overlaying a bit of Hollywood darkness in this Austrian room of glowing gold paintings. Before the song can play out, a dissonant sound begins to rise behind it . . . a Klimt image dissolves to a darker image by Egon Shiele, two figures locked in what may be a kiss, but looks vampiric . . . the sound rises, drowning out Waits . . .

And we cut to Vienna at night, the painfully loud siren that has been rising now at full, an ambulance racing down a dark street. Inside, Milena is gasping for life as she is given oxygen, Alex sitting next to her, oddly cool and distant. He notices that the paramedic attending Milena appears to be smiling as he looks down her robe at her cleavage, and quickly leans over to adjust it and block his view as we hear the voice of her thoughts say "Stefan, I’m sorry," and we move into her memory . . .

Now, trying to do a straight summary of the plot of Bad Timing breaks down, as the film is constantly shifting between the events of this night and the overlapping, non-chronological flashbacks of Alex and Milena reliving their relationship (as well as what may be fantasies of another character imagining what the history of Alex and Milena has been like); also, many of these flashbacks may be not what “actually” happened, but events as the characters remember them, or wish they had happened (several incidents are repeated, with crucial details changed as the people remembering change their memories to present themselves in a better light). So in lieu of how the plot is presented, a bit of how it goes, somewhat untangled:

Milena has attempted suicide with an overdose of pills, first calling Alex to say goodbye. Alex went to her apartment, and, finding her comatose, called the ambulance and has accompanied her to the hospital. As she is taken into an operating room, Alex is asked a number of routine questions about Milena, himself, and their relationship. Routine questions, yes, but Alex’s answers are variously arrogant, evasive, hostile, or obvious lies, arousing suspicion in the policeman questioning him, who calls in his superior, Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) to examine the situation further. Netusil questions Alex, receiving no more information then before, but unnerving Alex by coolly standing up to his arrogance and condescension (Alex, obviously fluent in German, apparently refuses to speak a word, and, when offered a cigarette, pointedly notes he only smokes an American brand). Making sure that Alex intends to stay at the hospital to await word of Milena's condition, Netusil begins to investigate the case as Dr. Alex Linden remembers . . .

Alex and Milena met at a party and were immediately attracted to each other, falling quickly into an obsessive, sexually-based relationship. Alex is a celebrated "research psychiatrist" from New York City, teaching in Vienna, sometimes at the Freud Museum, cold, distant, fiercely intellectual, but somehow charismatic; Milena is an US Army brat of no apparent means of support who has wandered back through the countries she was raised in to find herself in Vienna, a free spirit, a boisterous extrovert who can also fall into sudden depressions, with a growing drinking problem. We see bits and pieces of their relationship both from Alex's memories and from Milena’s as they remember them -- Milena sliding in and out of consciousness on the operating table while Alex paces the corridors and night streets outside.

Meanwhile, Inspector Netusil, investigating Milena's suicide attempt, begins to find evidence that makes nonsense of Alex's version of the evening’s events, and, in trying to make sense of what he finds, in police records and in the disorder of Milena’s apartment, begins to play psychiatrist himself to figure out the twisted relationship of Alex and Milena, and some of what we see of their past may be nothing but his own supposition as to what happened between the two of them.

At the hospital, Alex plays detective with his own memories, seeming to look for the places where everything went wrong between himself and Milena. His arrogance and need for control being frustrated in his complete sexual obsession with the uncontrollable Milena, he began to treat her with greater cruelty and suspicion, believing that she was sleeping with every man she looked at for more than a moment. Doing some top secret profiling work for the US military in Vienna, investigating possible operatives for intelligence work, Alex discovers that one of his subjects, Stefan Vlodnik (Denholm Elliot), a Czech citizen, is in fact married to Milena, albeit estranged, resulting in yet another confrontation with her, and attempts to force her to get a divorce. The relationship degenerates into passionate sex interspersed with violent arguments and several "breakups," which always end with Alex or Milena having to see the other again, unable to stay away despite how terrible it keeps turning out. As much as they try to love each other, they seem to be doomed by "bad timing" -- one of them will always say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time to set the other one off into cruelty towards the other.

Netusil, by this point, has discovered another kind of "bad timing": that the facts point to Alex being at Milena’s apartment well over an hour earlier than he had claimed, and of having thus waited to call the ambulance until long after Milena had fallen into her coma.

Something happened between Alex and Milena in her room that night. Something horrible, it would seem. And Netusil brings Alex back there to confront him, hoping to provoke him into some kind of confession. But of what?

"You must understand, Dr. Linden, it is not enough to love a woman, especially when she is so . . . difficult. You must love her tremendously. Even more than one’s own dignity, don’t you agree?"
-- Stefan Vlodnik (Denholm Elliot) in Bad Timing

Bad Timing is a difficult, disturbing film that polarizes its audience (as small as that audience has been). Almost every aspect seems designed to walk a fine line between brilliant and clumsy, and every viewer will find it entirely one or the other (I fall, as is obvious, into those who find all of it brilliant). Theresa Russell has generally received praise for her brave performance as Milena - not just brave in terms of willing to be filmed from unflattering angles in various states of undress or non-dress, but emotionally brave and revealing - but Garfunkel and Keitel have just as often been criticized for performances that are for some, respectively, wooden and overwrought, but for others perfectly capture the cool distance of Alex and the emotional, manipulative Netusil.

Roeg, who had reimagined the form of the horror film in Don't Look Now and the science-fiction film in The Man Who Fell To Earth, here, whether intentionally or not, uses the tropes of noir - multiple flashbacks, including flashbacks within flashbacks and untrustworthy, subjective flashbacks; an investigator as involved in his case for emotional, personal reasons as for the law or justice; a seemingly rational, level-headed man’s obsession with a woman sending him to irrational, violent lengths - to question his audience’s ideas about the possibility of trusting memory and perception, and about how terrible they might become themselves under similar circumstances. Though we are presented with what seems to be the truth of what happened between Alex and Milena on one horrible night, we can never know for sure.

Or can we? It doesn’t spoil anything to say that the coda to the film takes place months, maybe years, after the film proper, and a final encounter between the former lovers, in another city, on another continent, with Alex still obsessed, facing a silent Milena, her previously warm, open face now transformed into a cruel, pitiless mask of hatred. Perhaps the film could be subtitled, "The Creation of a Femme-Fatale."

Bad Timing has not been released to date on USA video in any form, though a terrible pan-and-scan version of this beautifully-shot widescreen film used to show up on cable from time to time. An okay, bare-bones R2 DVD release came out from Carlton in England a couple of years ago, and I believe it has also come out in Australia. It will finally be released tomorrow, Tuesday, September 27, on DVD in the USA by the Criterion Collectionin a beautiful transfer with many extras. If you’re willing to maybe be one of the “sick people” who prize this film above most others, please check it out.


Monday, September 19, 2005

So Evil My Love (1948)


Posted by Nick Beal

In the late Forties while Bogey and Alan Ladd were kicking down doors in the cinematic Dark Cities of the West Coast of the US of A another strain of Noir sprang into improbable life. This brief cycle of films, set in the late Victorian era in the darker cities of the Old World (most particularly London) celebrated with a perverse nostalgia the dark sexual undercurrents and murderous deeds that bubbled beneath that tranquil brook of middle-class respectability. These are not the drawing rooms that Raymond Chandler derided in his 'Simple Art Of Murder'. Sometimes called 'Gaslight Noir' this classy confederation of celluloid games of love and murder included such genre classics as Mark of Caine, Moss Rose, Hangover Square, The Lodger (The Laird Cregar version), Gaslight (Both versions), Blanche Fury, Spiral Staircase and the incandescently splendid So Evil My Love.

Alone on the deck of a storm-tossed sailing vessel, 'homeward bound from the W.Indies' missionary's widow Olivia Marwood (Glacial blonde Ann Todd-'The Seventh Veil','The Passionate Friends'et al) exults in the naked elements until reluctantly agreeing to go below deck to nurse malarial patients. This precipitates a fateful encounter with suave art-thief, forger and scam artist Mark Bellis (Ray Milland at his most Mephistophelean) who, quick to spot the main chance, follows Olivia and takes up residence in the lodging house she has inherited. Immersing himself in suburban anonymity whilst he plots another heist, Bellis takes time out to work a practised seduction on the naive Olivia ("We both share a special kind of loneliness") who falls hard for her lodger during the course an intimate portrait sesion. Meanwhile, Bellis still finds the time to enjoy the coarser charms of Moira Lister's ('The Limping Man', 'Wanted For Murder') Kitty Feathers.

Linking with former confederate Bellamy (Raymond Lovell), and following a standout sequence across the rooftops of Old London Town ('..Always rooftops, always rain.. such a bore..") Bellis's attempted theft of the Millbrook Collection of paintings comes to grief in a hail of bullets and returning to Olivia he announces that his prospects are now zero and that he must leave to seek his fortune in foreign parts. Desperate to prevent her lover's departure ("I've never really loved a man before, nor been loved in return... nothing shall take it from me. Nothing..") and seeking cash Olivia swallows her scruples and insinuates herself into the palatial home of old schoolfriend Susan Courtney (The sublime Geraldine Fitzgerald, here tightly wrapped as a fragile neurotic, and a million miles away from the seductive vision that illuminated 'Nobody Lives Forever'). Olivia is soon employed by Susan's husband, prospective peer-of-the-realm Henry Courtney (a pallid half-brother to the demonic patriarchs of the 'Gaslight' pictures and played in fine-style by a sneering Raymond Huntley) to be his wife's live-in companion and the staid Olivia slowly begins to embrace the deception with zest as she begins to feed Bellis with stocks and bonds and other valuables pilfered from her employers.

Bellis learns of an old cache of letters from Susan to Olivia containing details of youthful indiscretions that could compromise the Courtney's social standing and starts to sniff a big payday. Blackmail is initially a step too far down the Dark Road for Olivia ("..because I love you I have done things that are against my better nature..against everything I believe..") and she flees into the night. Having been unable to find a new missionary work without the humiliation of an arranged remarriage Olivia wearily seeks sanctuary in a gloomy church. Her prayers are answered only by Bellis silently oozing out of the shadows having mysteriously located her and she finally succumbs completely to his influence.

Meanwhile, Henry Courtney dissatisfied with his wife's inability to produce an heir is plotting to commit here to a remote sanatorium and has also employed Edwardian PI Jarvis (Leo G.Carroll) who has tracked the missing Bonds back to Olivia and has a dossier on Bellis that contains "enough to hang him".

While Olivia grifts at the Courtneys on his behalf Bellis still dallies with Kitty Feathers and in a moment of uncharacteristic self-revelation declares to her his true feelings for Olivia... "I'm capable of emotions I distrust..and I don't like it.." and to disspel any tender emotion he makes the fatal error of giving Kitty a locket that was a gift from Olivia.

Susan Courtney is locked in her room waiting for the men from sanatorium to come-a-calling as Olivia meets with Henry Courtney to collect the ransom for his wife's letters. He reveals to her the dossier he has on Bellis and a struggle ensues causing Courtney, who has a history of heart-disease to have a near-fatal attack. Olivia, who has eased Courtney's condition before using her knowledge of drugs derived from exotic plants ("Antimone isn't it..? ..We used it on the Islands to kill insects.. Tarantulas mostly..") tricks Susan into administering a medicine laced with poison to her stricken husband precipitating a harrowing final act with the framed Susan gallows-bound. ("It must have been me. I wanted him dead.")

Finally admitting to his 'romantic obsession' Bellis returns from hiding-out in France to take Olivia away to a new life in America. However, the conscience-stricken Olivia's encounter with Kitty Feathers wearing the locket she had given Bellis as a love-token is a prelude to a bloody denouement in a closed hansom cab outside Westminster Abbey...

As the contemporary publicity summed this opus of fatal attraction....

"In your arms...I know no right or wrong...you have made me what you are..so evil my love.."

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Monday, September 12, 2005

Detective Story (1951)

Posted by OX

This 1951 movie is a police procedural type of movie adapted from a play written by Sidney Kingsley. It represents part of one 8-hour shift at the 21st Precinct in New York City and only about three scenes take place outside the police station.

Ever notice the overwhelmingly Irish makeup of characters in the NYC PD in the 40's and 50's, at least if the film industry's perception can be trusted? We have Lieutenant Monaghan (Horace McMahon), Jim McLeod (Douglas), Detective Lou Brody (William Bendix in a serious role!), Detective Gallagher (Frank Faylen), and Detectives Callahan and O'Brien?

Just for a little variation we have a Detective Dakis (Greek?), and an African-American Patrolman Barnes (Russell Evans)!! I don't recall seeing a whole lot of black cops in the 40's/50's movies, do you? He doesn't figure prominently, but at least his character is treated respectfully.



This is a Precinct which quarrels among themselves, but genuinely cares about one another and supports one another. Jim McLeod is both hot-headed and intolerant, but is so good at his job that the others support him. Lieutenant Monaghan is (IMO) the epitome of what a boss should be, giving his subordinates a lot of autonomy and trust, but is not averse to chewing some hiney when he thinks it's warranted. Lou Brody (Bendix) is fatherly and from absolutely blue-collar roots, and is probably the soul of the precinct. Det. Gallagher has the unenviable duty of handling crank calls and dealing with "characters."

Among these "characters" are embezzler (?) Arthur Kindred (Craig Hill), a young WW II vet, and his girlfriend's younger sister Susan Carmichael (Cathy O'Donnell, a lovely actress who died far too young!). Lee Grant, in her first movie appearance as an unnamed shoplifter and first-time visitor to "The System", earned an Oscar nomination for her role. (Personally, to me she's mostly just comic relief, and almost as exasperating as Edith Bunker, but she played her role so well!) Eleanor Parker plays the loving and forgiving Mary, wife of uncompromising and steely cold Detective Jim McLeod. Gladys George plays Miss Hatch, who is called upon to identify a miscreant from a line-up and subsequently infuriates McLeod to the point where he tells Miss Hatch to "take a couple of Drop Dead pills!" Burt Mustin appears in a throwaway part as the janitor for the 21st precinct.

The "Bad Guys" in this movie are abortionist/adoption ring leader Dr. Karl Schneider (well-played by George Macready!), burglar Charley Gennini (a memorable Joseph Wiseman!), and slick sleazeball lawyer Endicott Sims (a smooth and oily Warner Anderson). Charley Gennini is either crazier than a bedbug or on drugs, but he alternates between catatonic and explosive with a stop at maniacal along the way, and makes for a VERY memorable character. (No wonder I've always liked Joseph Wiseman as an actor!) George Macready's portrayal of abortionist Karl Schneider is very effective, and Warner Anderson's lawyer role represents the present-day perception of lawyers as "hired guns for dirtbags" superbly.

IMO, Douglas' portrayal of Jim McLeod was very intense, and his persona kept this admittedly slow-moving movie from dragging. Wiseman was also great! The ensemble worked together superbly, and this is a movie I could watch once or twice a year for the rest of my days without ever tiring of it.

There are a few items about this movie that I'd like to list:

(1) The 21st WASN'T air conditioned. Sweat stains on shirts abound!
(2) Bill Bendix's character Lou Brody lost a son in WW II on the cruiser USS Juneau. The real-life ship disintegrated from a torpedo hit with only 10 survivors in 1942, and 5 of the dead were the famous Sullivan Brothers!
(3) The opening scene illustrates that big-city cops weren't expert drivers!
(4) When Lee Grant's character makes her phone call, notice that she refers to a NAMED EXCHANGE rather than today's generic "555-whatever" numbers.
(5) A "line-up" is held right in the squad room rather than the present-day "behind one-way glass" arrangement. Maybe this is the way it was in real-life 1951?
(6) GREAT LINE, Bendix to Douglas: "Maybe it would melt that rock you've got for a heart!"
(7) GREAT LINE, Craig Hill to Cathy O'Donnell: "Joy is prettier than you, but you're more beautiful!"
(8) GREAT LINE, Parker to Douglas: "You're everything you always said you hated in your own father.

Eleanor Parker would get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and newcomer Lee Grant another for Best Supporting Actress in her screen debut, as well as William Wyler for Best Director and the duo of Phillip Yordan/Robert Wyler for Best Screenplay. None of them won. (In my opinion Kirk Douglas should have gotten TWO nominations for Best Actor in 1951, for both this movie and "The Big Carnival"!)

So "Detective Story" is a day in the life of the 21st Precinct, and a crucial day in the lives of Detective Jim McLeod and wife Mary, and about-to-become criminal Arthur Kindred and more-than-friend Susan Carmichael. Is it worth 103 minutes of your time? It certainly was (and will be many times again) to me!



Monday, September 05, 2005

The Long Memory (1952)

Posted by Don Malcolm

Note: this was written prior to the thread about picking more “accessible” films for the NOTW. In this instance, I’m exposing everyone to a “lost” film that will hopefully become available in the near future.

Please also note the large number of 1950s British films listed in the "noir pedigree" section that are apparently unavailable at present. If any of our intrepid British film collectors have leads on these, feel free to let us know--the descriptions of these films at IMDB make most of them sound worth a look.


THE LONG MEMORY

(UK, 1952)

Director: Robert Hamer
NOIR PEDIGREE: It Always Rains On Sunday (1948), The Spider And The Fly (1949)

Cinematographer: Harry Waxman
NOIR PEDIGREE: Brighton Rock (1947), To The Public Danger (1948), Waterfront (1950), The Sleeping Tiger (1954), Lost (1955), House Of Secrets (1956)

Writers: Robert Hamer/Frank Harvey (original novel by Harold Clewes)

Lead actors:

John Mills (Phillip Davidson)
NOIR PEDIGREE: The October Man (1947)

John McCullum (Supt. Bob Lowther)
NOIR PEDIGREE: It Always Rains On Sunday (1948), The Woman In Question (aka Five Angles on Murder) (1950), Port Of Escape (1956)

Elizabeth Sellars (Fay Lowther)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Guilt Is My Shadow (1950), Cloudburst (1951), Hunted (1952), Recoil (1953), Forbidden Cargo (1954), Three Cases Of Murder (1955), The Last Man To Hang? (1956)

Eva Bergh (Ilse)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Venner (Norway, 1960)

Supporting actors:

John Chandos (Boyd)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Terror Street (1953), One Way Out (1954), The Ship That Died Of Shame (1955)

The recent series at UCLA devoted to Robert Hamer showcased the wide range of that famously "self-destructive" British director, known mostly for his films with Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, Father Brown). The Long Memory, a “redemption noir,” might well frustrate those who crave more grit and bad girls, but others will admire the deft interpolation of so many themes and plot convolutions—and the terrific lenswork of Harry Waxman, whose stark but understated style is used to maximum advantage.

Even though this film is apparently unavailable anywhere, it’s of sufficient interest that I’m going to add it to our NOTW in hopes that the indefatigable noirhounds here will turn their attention to turning it up so that the rest of you can enjoy it.


PLOT SYNOPSIS


Phillip Davidson (John Mills) is released from prison after serving twelve years for a murder he didn’t commit. He holes up in a bleak, remote shack on the Marshes, where he plots his revenge against those who lied at his trial. (A flashback provides us the details: a smuggling job goes sour, and Davidson is blamed for the death of a man who, in fact, is not dead. His girlfriend, Fay—who, in one of the film’s neat little ironies, subsequently marries a police superintendent)—is coerced by her father to lie about the identity of the man who was burned in the boat fire that followed the altercation).

As he slowly formulates his plan for revenge, Davidson frequents a rundown tavern on the Marsh, where he tries to get a line on the punch-drunk boxer who also lied at his trial. There he gets involved with Ilse (Norwegian actress Eva Bergh), a refugee with the type of intense emotional antennae that allows her to recognize a latent spiritual side to Davidson. He saves her from being raped one night, and a simultaneously awkward and touching relationship begins to develop, forcing Davidson to re-evaluate his need for revenge.

Meanwhile, Fay (Ellzabeth Sellars) and her husband (John McCullum) are extremely worried. Her lies—and the really dangerous secret that the man presumed dead (Boyd, played with nicely escalating desperation by John Chandos) is still a presence in the underworld—are in danger of exposure. When Davidson intimidates the fighter into recanting his earlier testimony, Fay is forced to find Boyd and arrange for her own disappearance—sacrificing her suburban home with husband and son.

Before she can finalize those arrangements, however, Davidson confronts her. Taking a cue from his developing attachment to Ilse, he backs away from revenge, explaining to Fay how he had shed his desire to punish her for what she’d done to him.

Boyd, however, doesn’t turn up to help Fay, and his path crosses Davidson’s when the barkeeper enlists him to deliver a package to Boyd’s office. Fay’s husband, aware of her lie from even before their marriage, tracks his wife down and finds out that Boyd is alive. He figures out that Boyd and Davidson are now in a death chase across the Marsh, and he gives chase, hoping to intercept the two men before Davidson is killed.

How does it end? You’ve got a 50-50 chance of being right...


COMMENTARY

The acting in this film is mostly in that specifically-British style of taciturn underplaying, though Chandos is refreshingly sweaty in his role as the closeted crime boss. As Ilse, Bergh gives a genuinely strange performance, alternating between nuance and exaggeration, brimming with emotions that are simultaneously wooden and overwrought. Despite this, she is still somehow mesmerizing. Her modern look—a sloe-eyed, turned-down Ingrid Bergman—carries her through these often-careening inconsistencies.

Mills is rock-solid throughout, managing to smooth over the rough points in his character’s transitions. Sellars and McCullum (in real life, the husband of Googie Withers) are “teddibly proper” but show their skill at nuance, playing a well-modulated game of cat-and-mouse with each other. And the gallery of grotesques who pop up from time to time are in the time-honored, terribly-toothed British tradition that has no rival in any other "national cinema."

The real stars here are Hamer and Waxman, however, who make every composition and camera angle count, and saturate the film with a sense of atmosphere that is finely attuned to the details of each scene. The Long Memory has a great deal in common thematically with another "redemption noir," Frank Borzage’s atmospheric Moonrise, and they’d make for a most satisfying double bill.

Now it’s up to the “trackdown specialists” at the Blackboard to dig up a video of this one. Hopefully the above has provided you with sufficient motivation...

(Note also the various other obscure "Brit noir" titles in the noir pedigree section—there’s still more to unearth, guys!)

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